Celso Piña, a beloved Mexican musician who performed regularly in Chicago, has died. Known as the “rebel of the accordion” and a popular cumbia music performer, Piña last performed at a show in the city’s Pilsen neighborhood on Sunday.
Piña died Wednesday in his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico of a heart attack. He was 66, according to his music label La Tuna Group.
At his performance at the annual Pilsen Fest hundreds of Chicagoans danced to his Colombian vallenato style of cumbia Sunday evening.
Cumbia music was born out of slavery in Colombia. The universal two-step dance that goes with it came from African slaves who were shackled at their feet, Eduardo Diaz, director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, told NPR.
Cumbia is now heard throughout Latin America, with every country incorporating other elements and dance styles. It is a working-class music style that ranges from Peru’s version of cumbia known as chicha, which incorporates psychedelic rock sounds, to traditional Colombian cumbia.
Alex Chavez, a musician and a professor at Notre Dame who studies Latino music and culture, says Piña’s style of cumbia music, which included a “hip-hop edge,” was a hit with Chicago’s young Latinx community.
“Every time he came to Chicago you’d survey the crowd and it was always packed and but always a lot of people who could connect with his brand of cumbia — cumbia Colombiana de Monterrey, cumbia rebajada, cumbia with a hip-hop edge that speaks to younger audience.”
Piña, who was self-taught, started performing in the 1980s in Monterrey. But he became popular with younger generations when he started mixing cumbia with other genres.
“The breakout hit Cumbia Sobre el Rio made cumbia really hip for us,” Chavez said. “It became this touch tone because for us cumbia was this intimate, domestic thing — you’re at your backyard parties or quinceaneras, it’s part of home, then all of sudden this record drops with this hip hop aesthetic and cumbia becomes this forcefully public celebratory thing.”
Chavez and his band Dos Santos shared the stage with Piña many times, including twice this summer.
Another musician with Chavez’s band, Jaime Garza, grew up in Monterrey and remembers Piña’s music fondly. He organizes Mole de Mayo festival, in Pilsen’s neighborhood, Piña performed in 2017.
“When he and the band arrived, without knowing who I was, he looked directly at me [and] the first thing he said to me was ‘Que onda Carnal’ [what’s up dude] smiling. [He] seemed happy and grateful to be there,” Garza said.
His presence will continue in Chicago.
“In essence, Celso Piña is like family to us Mexicanos, Colombianos, Chicanos, Mexican Americans and Latinx folks,” Garza said.
Piña, who performed around the world, collaborated with many major Mexican artists including Control Machete, Julieta Venegas, Cafe Tacvba and Lila Downs.
In an interview, Piña described the joy he felt when Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez danced to his music. It meant his working class music could be enjoyed by everyone in Latin America.
On a personal note, Cumbia is the sound of this reporter’s childhood in Mexico.
Cumbia, among other music, is the sound of weddings, quinceañeras and birthday celebrations and it was there where I learned to dance. As a teenager, I perfected the art of gracefully spinning with my dance partner.
I saw Piña perform many times. I was there Sunday night at Chicago’s Pilsen Fest. I never thought it would my last time hearing him perform. I keep thinking of his version of the song Los Caminos de la Vida.
“Los caminos de la vida
Son muy difícil de andarlos
Difícil de caminarlos
Yo no encuentro la salida”
Here are the two songs mentioned in this article:
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.